Castle House

Former Brightside & Carbrook Co-operative Store, Castle House, Sheffield
Former Brightside & Carbrook Co-operative Store, Castle House, Sheffield: main staircase

The “Co-op” was the mainstay of many working-class families, particularly in the north of England, from the mid-nineteenth century until well after the Second World War.  Not only did it provide groceries and greengroceries;  it offered furniture, funerals, clothing, carpets, soap and shoes as well as banking and insurance.  The Co-operative Group remains powerful, but it has lost its proud tradition of cradle-to-grave service to customers who regained the profits of their trading through the dividend, or “divi”.

For historical reasons which were perpetuated by political inertia, there were two co-operative societies in Sheffield, the Brightside & Carbrook and the Sheffield & Ecclesall – the former based in the gritty, working-class east end and the latter serving the more affluent areas to the west.  Geography divided Sheffield’s population in shopping, just as it did in football.  Both co-ops originated in the 1860s.

Everyone remembered their “stores number”, which they gave to the shop assistant for every purchase so that at the end of the year the “divi” reached their membership account.

The Brightside & Carbrook Co-operative Society chose to plant their flagship city-centre store at the south end of Lady’s Bridge on land purchased from the City Council in 1914.

Building operations stalled until 1927, and construction revealed vestiges of the medieval Sheffield Castle, which had been dismantled in the mid-seventeenth century after the end of the Civil War.

The City Stores, a splendid shopping emporium with a lengthy façade stretching from Waingate along Exchange Street, eventually opened in 1929.

The building lasted only eleven years, and was destroyed in the 1940 Blitz. 

After the B&C Co-op gave up the site to the City Council for what became Castle Market it took instead a site at the corner of Castle Street and Angel Street, and initially made do with a single-storey shop opened in 1949.

When building restrictions were eventually relaxed at the end of the 1950s the Society expanded upwards, building the impressive Castle House, designed by George S Hay, the Co-operative Wholesale Society’s chief architect, in collaboration with the CWS interior designer, Stanley Layland.  It cost slightly under a million pounds.

Castle House began trading in 1962 and opened formally in 1964, joining replacements for other bombed-out Sheffield department stores – Walsh’s (1953; reconfigured early 1960s), Roberts Brothers (1954), Cockaynes (1955-56), Atkinsons (1960) and Pauldens (1965), along with the one of the only two Sheffield stores that wasn’t bombed, Cole Brothers, which relocated to Barker’s Pool in 1965.

Of these, the Brightside & Carbrook store expressed a different architectural language to any other building in the city.  The façade, splayed across the street corner, presents a blind wall of Blue Pearl Cornish granite that masked the sales floors on the first and second storeys. 

Within, an elegant spiral main staircase connected the ground floor to each floor, and at the top a mural relief of a cockerel and a fish heralded the restaurant, with an innovative suspended ceiling, and the directors’ lavish board room and executives’ offices.

Castle House stood out from the other postwar city-centre department stores by the quality of its design in the style then known as ‘contemporary’.  It spoke of the optimism of the 1950s and 1960s that life really was better than before the War and that there was no going back to the drudgery and hardship of the interwar period.

Shopping footfall in the city centre inexorably declined from the opening of the Meadowhall Centre in 1990.  The main retail operation at Castle House closed in 2008, followed by the remaining peripheral departments, travel, the Post Office (2011) and latterly the supermarket (2022).  It was listed Grade II in 2009.

Castle House and the adjacent former Horne’s building were repurposed in 2018 by the developer Kollider, though this enterprise hasn’t had a smooth passage:  Is Kommune on the verge of kollapse? – by Victoria Munro (sheffieldtribune.co.uk).

The building is apparently intact but clearly underused.   It still looks excitingly modern, though it’ll soon be sixty years old.  Like all buildings, it needs to earn its keep in a continuing hostile economic environment, yet deserves considerable amounts of TLC.

Indeed, when the Heart of the City development is complete, it’s to be hoped that the desert of decaying buildings and empty spaces between Castle Square and the Victoria Quays, with the Old Town Hall in its centre, will be similarly transformed. 

The longer it’s left, the more difficult it’ll be to rejuvenate.

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